The University Research Corridor — a partnership of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University — released its 11th economic impact report last week. The report highlights the universities’ contributions to the state economy, which totaled $18.7 billion in 2017.
This is a significant increase from 2015, when the URC added $16.5 billion to the state economy. Britany Affolter-Caine, executive director of the URC, attributes this increase to federal funding and larger student populations.
“It is being successful — the three universities — and continuing to grow their operations in terms of research and education,” Affolter-Caine said. “They’ve grown enrollment over the last several years. They’ve been more successful in capturing federal grants to fund their research. … Continuing growth in those areas is why we can say we’ve had a bigger impact.”
In addition, the URC added 78,845 jobs in 2017.
“I think it’s really important to think about the impact that’s non-monetary — the impact on individuals,” Affolter-Caine said. “There are many impacts that affect the rank-and-file Michigander.”
In the short term, students at URC universities contribute directly to the state and local economies by buying goods and services and boosting business. In the long-term, their presence is more important, according to Affolter-Caine. Students who attend these universities frequently find career paths in the state, often working on projects and jobs that can improve the lives of Michiganders.
Affolter-Caine also attributes the success to innovative services and projects developed by the universities which directly impact the state. She cites the Perinatology Research Branch, part of the Wayne State School of Medicine, as an excellent example of a university project that helped the general public. The PRB has discovered a non-invasive treatment for women at risk for pre-term labor, which is now part of standard practice in hospitals across Michigan.
Affolter-Caine also cited Mcity, a mock city in Ann Arbor used to test driverless cars, as another excellent example.
“There are just not that many really unique facilities like Mcity,” Affolter-Caine said. “And it is bringing businesses from all over the world to Ann Arbor. It gives students an opportunity to conduct research and get that experience.”
Engineering professor Glen Daigger, who has been acquainted with the URC for three years and participated in several cross-university collaborations, says that in addition to the raw economic contributions, the URC has helped significantly in facilitating further cooperation between the universities on various projects. He noted that the three universities have been working together to improve the networking between state researchers and practitioners in and out of Michigan. Daigger also cited the Great Lakes Water Authority’s research, development and innovation program as another instance of productive collaboration with all three universities.
Rackham student Cheng Yang, a PhD candidate in environmental engineering, is one of the students who has worked with Dr. Daigger at the GLWA. He and others on the team have been trying to reduce the doses used for chemical phosphate removal in water from the Great Lakes. If they succeed, they will be able to increase the efficiency and reduce the cost of the phosphate removal. He agrees that the URC collaboration is beneficial for both the researchers and the state as a whole.
“From a student’s perspective, it’s a really good way to (work together),” Yang said. “I want to be a practical engineer. So it is important to gain some real-world data and run some real-world simulations to feel that I can solve some real-world problems. This kind of collaboration provides me a great platform to achieve these goals.”
Yang also points out that Daigger has been able to share their findings with other universities and even teach a course in Ann Arbor based on the data they collected.
Like Affolter-Caine, Daigger believes that innovation is central to the local and statewide impact of the URC. He also credits researchers and academics for their work.
“If you aren’t doing new things and improving and so forth, you’re actually going down,” Daigger said. “In terms of economic contribution, the dollars flowing in for research are certainly a contribution, but it’s the ideas and the people and the enthusiasm and so forth that are the biggest contribution to continue the economic development here in Michigan.”
Daigger also emphasized the importance of students to the research and economic contributions from all three universities.
“Every engine needs fuel. The research engine needs money. One of the other fuels is the students,” Daigger said. “They’re the hands and the minds and the curiosity that really drive much of this research.”